What can Utah schools learn from education leader Finland?
It's a country that shies away from high-stakes school testing.
It's a place where teachers are required to have master's degrees, students spend less time in school than in the U.S. and early childhood education programs are available to all kids.
To some Utahns, the school system in Finland might sound like a dream, and, to others, a backward approach. But there's no arguing with the results: Finland's students rank far higher than those in the U.S. on international PISA tests.
At a time when Utahns are searching for ways to improve education debating everything from new academic standards to teacher training to technology some are turning to Finland for the answers.
More than 30 Utah educators recently visited the small Nordic nation as part of a Brigham Young University trip to learn about the schools there.
They were struck by a number of differences between Utah and Finnish schools. They saw strategies in Finland that might work in Utah, and others that might not translate.
Wade Jacoby, a BYU political science professor who directs the Center for the Study of Europe, which led the trip, said incorporating more of Finland's strategies would Utah more globally competitive.
"You can't be mediocre in schools and be a world beater in every other category," Jacoby said, specifically criticizing Utah's relatively low per-pupil funding. "It's doesn't work like that."
A profession of prestige • Perhaps the biggest difference many of the Utah teachers noticed can be described in one word: respect.
In Finland, teaching is a prestigious profession, and not just anyone can enter it. Only about 10 percent of applicants are accepted into teacher education programs.
All teachers also must earn master's degrees. Once teaching, they earn between 89 percent and 110 percent of what other college-educated professionals make there, according to 2010 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the U.S., teachers earn between 67 percent and 72 percent of what other college-educated professionals do.
Such respect seems to help Finland attract and retain the best educators, said Merinda Davis, a social studies teacher at Orem's Lakeridge Junior High. She said if teachers in the U.S. had to go through a similar training process, they might be more respected here as well.
"We really highly respect lawyers and doctors because of the training they have," Davis said.
Several of the educators said Finns' respect for teachers means a high level of trust as well.
"You obviously feel you can trust those folks to run their own classrooms without a whole lot of monitoring and oversight," Jacoby said.
Does testing hurt or help? • Such trust may be part of the reason Finns don't seem hung up on data and test scores, said Tara Black, a second-grade teacher at Indian Hills Elementary in Salt Lake City.
Finnish students generally take tests written by their teachers instead of standardized exams. The one big, national test they do take comes at the end of their general upper secondary educations, and is often used for admission to college.
Compare that with the U.S., where testing has become the basis of school accountability and improvement programs. In Utah, the vast majority of students take new SAGE tests toward the end of each school year, and high school students take the ACT college entrance exam.
Black said a surprising moment of the trip, for her, was when one of the Americans asked school leaders how their test scores compared with those of a nearby school.
"They didn't even know," Black said. "They didn't even look at those because that's not their focus. They're not there to compete against each other.
"Here, we have so many meetings where those test scores are put in front of us and we go over and over and over them and we're kind of so focused, we lose focus on the big picture, on what's really important instead of those test scores," Black said.
Not everyone in the U.S., of course, agrees.
The case for testing • Though everyone fears over-testing, many U.S. educators have long said that the testing and data analysis that came into vogue with No Child Left Behind helped them better pinpoint their instruction.
And policymakers, especially those on the political right, have championed using school testing to hold schools accountable and help them improve. In Utah, schools now receive letter grades based largely on test results, and legislators passed a law in recent years to tie educator pay to those results.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who supported the state's new law to grade schools, said he believes too much weight is now put on end-of-level testing and not enough on actual mastery of subject matter.
But he said testing, focusing on mastery and grading schools are not mutually exclusive.
"We can have school grading, we can have transparency in performance, and we can also move students forward based on mastery and give them the time they need to achieve mastery, as opposed to batch processing students as if they were all uniform widgets," Stephenson said.
Finnish schools follow national academic standards though curriculum is left up to local schools. Utah and most other states in recent years adopted Common Core academic standards, while also leaving curriculum decisions up to schools.
The Common Core, however, has been divisive in the U.S., with some worried the standards are impeding local control.
Culture and competition • The Utah teachers who visited Finland say they believe some of that country's strategies might work here.
For example, they say, teacher training could be made more rigorous and pay could be boosted, to help bring more respect to the profession.
"It absolutely could be replicated," Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said of the Finnish system. "It would take policymakers getting out of the micromanaging aspect of it and putting in place support structures to make that happen."
The teachers who visited Finland, however, say some parts of Finland's system might be too difficult to duplicate here in some cases, because of cultural and socioeconomic differences.
American schools, for example, are often less homogeneous than Finland's, said Patti White, a Granite district systems support coach. In some Salt Lake City schools, dozens of languages are spoken, with schools serving high numbers of immigrants and refugees. Also, Finland has much lower levels of child poverty than the U.S. and more government supports for citizens.
"I just think Americans are much more right of center than the Finns are," said Denise Jamsa, a former Utah junior high teacher who was part of the trip. Her mother is from Finland.
"Socialism is considered an evil word here whereas in Finland it's not. They value their freedom. They're not communists, but they don't see social programs as evil."
Davis said Finns don't seem as competitive as Americans, and its people seem to have more trust in the school system.
Still, White said, the ultimate goals in Finland and the U.S. are the same.
"I think we have differences, but I think most parents, one of their most important things they want to have happen, is for their kids to be happy at school and have a good education," White said. "I think we can do that but we do have to make some changes."
Essays from Utah teachers: What can our schools learn from Finland?
Several of the 32 Utah teachers who recently visited Finland and other countries with Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Europe have written essays sharing their thoughts.
Russ McKell: Having the time to show students you care
Tara Black: Seeing the big picture in Finland
Laura Nelson: Training great teachers the Finnish way
Donell Willey: Getting students involved in the adult world
Linda Davis: Finland sees kids as 'our greatest natural resource'
Patti White: Finland's broader approach to special education